how do you write?

How do you write?

A lot of people answer this question by talking about their routine. 6:12am, cup of coffee, listening to Italian opera on Spotify, ten breathing exercises, a single lamp on in their office. Or maybe: writing when it comes to them, anywhere, on the subway on their phone, dictating paragraphs as they walk their kids to school, up late at night typing maniacally on their keyboards as their spouse tries to sleep. Or something in between.

These routines are interesting from a voyeuristic perspective, which is why there are infinitely many interviews about writing routines to be found online.

But they also seem to me to be something a bit tangential to what people with the question are really asking, which is, How can I write? I know how to sit at a desk, I know how to open a computer, but how can I come up with stories?

How can I literally write?

If this is you, I think there are a few things to think about.

Personally—and I know other writers may be different—I have been coming up with stories since I was old enough to string together sentences, or perhaps more accurately, old enough to lie. Of course, most of these stories were terrible. And of course, I always struggle to find the right story, or the right way to tell it. No one said writing was easy. But the germs of ideas are always floating around my mind, like dandelion tufts in a breeze.

After you choose one of the tufts and pluck it (see earlier entry about where you get your ideas), writing about it becomes a matter of explaining the tuft. How did it get there? Where is it going? What does it look like? What is special about its outlook? What does it want? (Dandelion tufts not being generally known as sentient, this metaphor is now starting to seem like a badly plucked idea.)


Now here’s where I might get controversial. So feel free to disagree. But I sort of think if you don’t have dandelion tufts of fiction floating around in your brain, if you aren’t constantly making up weird stories about people you meet, or inventing characters, or falling asleep thinking about imaginary worlds, then maybe you aren’t meant to be writing fiction.

That’s fine! Not everyone needs to write fiction! Would you expect everyone to paint, or do interpretative dance, or perform heart surgeries, or make an amazing cup of coffee? People have different skills and paths in life, and that’s okay. There’s a tendency, maybe less so now that we’re shifting to a more television-based society, to believe that everyone has a book inside them. And I’m sure everyone has many things they could write about. But like most careers, writing is a grueling and largely unrewarding journey, so if you don’t feel drawn to the act of it… if you aren’t obsessed with creating fictional worlds… if you feel like only publication and a movie deal would bring meaning to your work… if the idea of writing instead of watching the new season of Stranger Things is completely unthinkable… 

Then maybe you are not supposed to be writing.

That’s okay.

It’s not a judgment on you.

Or a suggestion that you have no inner life.

It’s just that maybe you need to find a different outlet for your creativity and passion.

In that case, it might be helpful to spend some time thinking about why you think you want to write. What do you want to get out of it? Are there other ways to accomplish it?


To clarify, I don’t want to suggest that writing should be easy, and that if it’s not easy, you shouldn’t be doing it. That would be crazy! Writing is hard for everyone, even (maybe especially) people who have been writing for a very long time. Writer’s block can be devastating and can seem endless.

Also, there are challenges to overcome before you start writing. Maybe you need to gain confidence. Or learn to type. Or gain fluency. Or just find the time, which is so hard in this 24-hour world.

These are real obstacles. It may take you a long time to overcome them. That is okay. I have been very lucky to have material conditions that have allowed me to write seriously for a long time, and if I hadn’t had those material conditions, I don’t know where I would be today.


My point is…

There are so many obstacles to writing.

Coming up with a story shouldn’t be one of them.


[Thoughts about routines and writer’s block to come another time!]

Sara SligarComment